Thursday, December 5, 2013

Stranded in St. John's New Foundland--It's Gulling, November 27, 28 and 29

I drove through intermittent rain the afternoon of November 26 to the airport in Halifax.  I was the last person to board the plane on a Porter flight as they started announcing that the gate was closing!  I arrived in St. John's at about 7:00 pm.  I had not had time to reserve a rental car and hotel room, given that this trip was done on the fly.  In the airport, I reserved a vehicle and a hotel room, picked up the car and drove to my motel. 

No telling what the approaching storm may bring over the next few days!  My original plan was to stay in St. John's for one day, get the Yellow-legged Gull and then fly back to Halifax and drive to Digby, NS to take the ferry back to St. John, NB.  It was a nice plan in theory!  Neil Hayward had done this about one week ago.  However, very soon on Wednesday, November 27, I got a phone message stating that the ferry from Digby, NS to St. John, NB was cancelled.  Obviously storm related.  I found out later that flights from Halifax to St. John's and St. John's to Halifax were cancelled due to the high winds from the storm.  It can be galling when one is stranded at a location unexpectedly and with no plans for things to do.  However, this is St. John's, a premier place for gulls in the winter time, so gulling it is.

Neil Hayward had forwarded suggestions on where to look for the Yellow-legged Gull which Jared Clarke, a local expert, had provided.  I contacted Jared, but he was busy with work and might stop by briefly.  I started at Quidi Vidi Lake in the morning to search the gull flocks on the lake and on the nearby roof-tops.  It was partly cloudy to cloudy with intermittent sunshine.  I walked almost three quarters of the way around the lake checking out the gulls on the lake.  Gulls flew into the lake to bath, drink and rest and then flew back to the roof tops or off to undisclosed locations.  There were thousands of gulls to sort through.  To find the Yellow-legged Gull in flocks of the abundant Herring Gulls, I looked for a gull about the same size as Herring Gull, maybe slightly smaller, with a gray back color intermediate between Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull.  To demonstrate the color difference, below is a photo showing a Herring Gull and a nearby Lesser Black-backed Gull for comparison, in this case roosting on the ground.  The Lesser Black-backed Gull is the slightly smaller gull in the middle with yellow legs and feet, dark gray mantle and wings.  A Herring Gull is immediately to the left and slightly behind the Lesser Black-backed Gull.  The larger gull with a dark black mantle and wings to the right and slightly closer is a Great Black-backed Gull.  This photo was taken on a cloudy day, which can affect the apparent shade of gray, and this Lesser Black-backed Gull may be a slightly darker bird.  Jared Clarke told me that there is variation in the shade of dark gray between different Lesser Black-backed gulls here at St. John's.  
Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Great Black-backed Gull
Finding particular gulls in the flocks of gull is like trying the find a needle in a haystack.  See photo below, showing a typical flock of gulls roosting on the ground.  The above photo was a central cut of this photo below. 
Typical gull flock

In the flocks on the lake I also found Iceland Gulls, a few Glaucous Gulls, one or two Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a small flock of Black-headed Gulls but not the Yellow-legged Gull I was seeking.  I checked nearby roofs where gulls were roosting and then moved north of the lake to look for a grassy hillside off of Chartier Avenue where gulls roost and is a good spot for Yellow-legged Gull.  No luck.  I noticed the effect of light on the relative shade of gray visible on gulls in St. John's.  The lighter gray of the mantle and wings of Herring Gull can sometimes appear darker depending on the angle of viewing and the angle of the light striking the bird.  In addition, when a Herring gull is preening its wings, the wings can sometimes look a darker gray, which disappears when the bird folds its wings into the normal closed position.  Later during my stay when I met Jared Clarke, he verified that he has observed this same effect.  Finding the Yellow-legged Gull s likely to be quite difficult!  Toward the east and north of the lake in Pleasantville, there were large flocks of gulls on the roofs of apartment and business buildings.  I found a spot on Janeway Place up the hill where I was able to scan these roofs looking down from above.

Between 2:00 and 2:30 pm, I found a gull on one roof buried in the flock and showing only partially that looked to be the intermediate shade of gray between Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull.  I studied this bird for a long time through binoculars and telescope.  Eventually, the other gulls moved.  The gull in question seemed rather large.  That didn't seem right for the Yellow-legged Gull.  Eventually, this gull turned and morphed into a Great Black-backed Gull!  The light conditions and my angle of viewing caused this effect.  The sun was dropping in the west, the sky was clearing, and the bright sunlight was at an angle that made the black color of the mantle and wings appear to be an intermediate gray.  When this Great Black-backed Gull turned, it stood right beside another essentially identical Great Black-backed Gull, both showing the dark black mantle and wings.  Wow!  Identifying a Yellow-legged Gull will require great care!   I continued to scan, and found an interesting bird on a far roof, that looked smaller than the Herring Gulls next to it, but with a gray mantle and wings that looked intermediate between Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull.  This was a very interesting gull!  The legs and feet looked yellow.  The crown and back of the head looked very white.  When it turned its head, the crown appeared flat and peaked in the back.  I could not see any streaking on the head, but that could may been the effect of distance.  When the gull turned its head, the bill showed a large red gonys spot and looked relatively thicker than the bills of the nearby Herring Gulls.  All of these field marks are good for Yellow-legged Gull.  I got my camera on this bird for a very long distant photograph and managed the two best photos shown below.   Shortly after getting the photos at about 3:30, all the gulls flew from this and nearby roofs circled high and disappeared.  The sun started to set rapidly and gulling was done for the day at about 4:00 pm, because most of the gulls in the area vanished as if into thin air.  Pun intended! 
Yellow-legged Gull?,
middle on roof edge, under left flying gull,
intermediate gray, apparent yellow legs and feet,
very white head, effect of late day light?
Yellow-legged Gull?, another view
I was communicating with Neil Hayward about this bird, and he suggested that I send the photos to Jared Clarke.  I did, and asked Jared's opinion.  Jared said my description about the head and bill sounded right for Yellow-legged Gull, the back color seemed right, the head was very white, the legs and feet appeared to be yellow, and this gull was a fair bit smaller than Herring Gulls, which is often the case for Yellow-legged Gull.  However, this gull may be too much smaller than Herring Gull, hard to tell with a very distant photo which lacks in good views of the details.  Also, Jared pointed out that without details in this distant photo, it is hard to rule out hybrids that are present, and that I will need to decide if I saw enough to count this bird.  I had nagging doubts given the relatively smaller size and particularly the effect of late day light that I had just experienced.  I looked on the internet and found a photo of this Yellow-legged Gull when it was first found in October by Bruce Mactavish, another expert from this area.  His photo from the same angle with Herring Gulls looked very similar to mine.   That was very encouraging.  However, his photo was obtained on a cloudy rainy day with diffuse light, better conditions than mine to see the differences in the shades of gray.

Thursday, Thanksgiving, November 28, was very windy, as the storm approached, and it got more windy during the day.  Jared Clarke had alerted me to the fact that on windy and rainy days, the gulls avoid the roof tops and roost on the playing fields just north of the lake along The Boulevard, on the grassy hillside off Chartier Avenue, the Bally Hally Golf Course or on a field near the landfill off East White Hills Road.  His advice was right on target.  Thanks, Jared!  I started at the playing fields.  It was shoulder to shoulder with gulls packed on the grassy areas of both playing fields (baseball).  I spent several hours scouring the flocks, but found only a darker backed Herring Gull that caused initial excitement until I saw its pink legs and feet.  I also found an adult winter plumage Lesser Black-backed Gull.  The gulls flew into these two flocks and back out to the lake with constant change over of birds.  Eventually, the roosting flocks on the playing fields decreased in size, and I was not seeing anything new nor, in particular, the Yellow-legged Gull.  I checked the lake.  No Yellow-legged Gull!  I drove to the landfill area and found the large flock on a field near the landfill.  There were massive flocks of thousands of gulls the rising in the air above the landfill (off limits) and then dropping down out of sight.  I scanned the flock on the field and took the photos show above of gulls on the ground.  I checked the grassy hillside just north of the lake off Chartier Avenue.  No gulls at all!  Same at Bally Hally Golf Course!   I spent the rest of the day rotating between the playing fields, where the flocks got very small later in the afternoon, the lake and the field near the landfill.  No Yellow-legged Gull!  I ended the day at the field near the landfill.  No Yellow-legged Gull!  Well, tomorrow is another day and needed to be my last.  The weather was predicted to improve.  Flights would be back on schedule.

I tried to make a flight reservation to leave on Friday, November 29, on the Porter website, and something locked up with my reservation.  In the morning on November 29, I stopped by the airport to try to talk to a person instead of a computer.  After getting my reservation issues resolved and receiving a confirmation e-mail, I started birding again.  There was very little wind and the sky was clear with bright sun.  Jared's prediction of gulls on the roof with low wind was right on.  No gulls on the playing fields, Bally Hally Golf Course or the grassy hillside north of the lake.  I stopped at the lake on the south side where I had the sun at my back.  There were large numbers of gulls on the lake.  I started scanning and found a gull on the water with an intermediate gray mantle, apparently lighter than Lesser Black-backed Gull but darker than Herring  Gull.  I got excited and stayed with this gull as the flock moved west on the lake from the vicinity of the boathouse.  Unfortunately, this gull had dark streaking on the face, but a very white nape and back of the head, but there was lighter streaking apparent at close range on the nape.  This gull had yellow legs and feet and a primary pattern that seemed intermediate between Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull due to more white being present in the primaries.  I concluded that this bird was either a hybrid between Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls or a Lesser Black-backed Gull in a slightly different plumage.  Again, the bright sunlight could have affected the appearance of the shade of gray on the mantle and wings.  See photos below.

Lesser Black-backed Gull or Yellow-legged Gull?, left
too much head streaking?, with Herring Gulls,
Lesser Black-backed Gull?
note different shades of gray on Herring Gulls, depends on position to light

Lesser Black-backed Gull?, right,
more than normal white in primaries, still in molt
Herring Gull, left 
By this time it was close to lunch time.  I got a sandwich at the Dominion grocery store right next to Quidi Vidi Lake, where I had bought lunch the previous two days, and then returned to the lake for one last look before changing locations, at least that is what I told myself.  I was standing just west of the boat house after  a cloud cover moved in and reduced the sunlight to diffuse lighting and the glare, when a flying gull  from the east low over the water caught my eye.  Holy cow!  That looks like a Yellow-legged Gull!  The intermediate gray on the mantle and wings was apparent and darker than the nearby Herring Gulls but not too dark.  The head was very white!  The gull landed and started bathing.  I could see the almost immaculate white head and a very flat crown.  The bill was thicker than that of the nearby Herring Gulls with a blunt end and a very large red gonys spot.  Now I had to see the legs and feet.  I had already started taking photos.  The bird took off revealing the yellow legs and feet.   It flew west as I continued getting flight photos hopping that I would catch the pattern in the primaries.  This gull circled east and I watched it until it disappeared in the vicinity of the apartment roofs near where I had the maybe Yellow-legged Gull on Wednesday.  I was certain that this was a Yellow-legged Gull.  I called Jared Clarke to ask him if he could stop by to take a look at my photos.  I would be leaving this evening and wanted his opinion on this bird.  I had looked at the flight photos and the primary pattern was consistent with Yellow-legged Gull.  I asked Jared to meet me at Janeway Place where I was headed to hopefully find the gull again on the roof tops.

Jared arrived and we meet for the first time.  I showed him the photos.  His first words were "You got him."  Then he described what he could see in my photos, the thick blunt "butter knife" shaped bill the large red gonys spot, the greater amount of black in the primaries at the wing tips above and below than in Herring Gull and the intermediate dark gray of the mantle and wings that is darker than Herring Gull but not as dark as in Lesser Black-backed Gull and the yellow legs and feet.  I was ecstatic!  Yes, finally, a good Yellow-legged Gull!  A great new life bird and new for the year!   See photos below.
Yellow-legged Gull,
darker gray than herring gulls behind, much lighter than Great Black-backed Gull to right,
flat crown, thick blunt bill, large red gonys spot on bill, very fine streaking on face but very white head
Yellow-legged Gull,
yellow legs and feet!

Yellow-legged Gull
more extensive black in wing tips above and below than Herring Gull
and without white in the gray tongues, butter knife shaped blunt bill, very white head

Yellow-legged Gull,
yellow legs and feet visible in flight.

This yellow-legged gull seemed to lack the smaller white spot/window on primary number nine, the second from the wing end.  the National Geographic field guides shows a white window on P10 and P9.  Jared explained that for the race of yellow-legged Gull from the Azores that shows up in St. John's, the white window on P9 may not be present.  Jared had to run.  Briefly, he told me about the problems with the light here at St. John's to identify this gull.  On clear sunny days, he does not look  for gulls, only on cloudy days where the light is diffuse.  I wished I could have talked birding with him more.  I promised to send him my best photos shown above.  They are not prize winners but document the field marks well enough.  This bird is a tough subject--always moving for me and not staying around very long. 

Later when I sent Jared these photos, he told me how blessed I was to see this bird well and also twice.  Well, I think the first sighting is a maybe, but this last one is the real deal!

When Jared left, I headed for the airport.  I had a long trip back home to Ohio first and then to Arizona and then probably to Alaska.  My flight to Halifax left at 5:45 pm.  I arrived in Halifax and then drove to St. John, New Brunswick taking the western route and stayed the night.  In the morning, I got a refund for my ferry trip from Digby, NS to St. John, NB, and then drove to Manchester, New Hampshire.  I flew from Manchester, NH to Dayton, OH via Baltimore, MD arriving at home at about 12:30 pm.  I needed to pick up my new credit card in the mail.  My previous one had been compromised by poor security at a vendor.  It was a short night.  Soon, at 7:30 am, I was on  my flight from Columbus, OH to Phoenix, Arizona, on my way eventually to Alaska.  More later and more to come!

Yellow-legged gull is life bird number 811 for the ABA Area and new for the year raising my Big Year total to 704 + 2.    


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